Damn, she actually should not even be alive. But such is her strength and courage that Ntombesintu Mfunzi will not only be running the Ultimate Human Race, she will be racing it with a spot in the top 10 her target.
Granted her name has not been mentioned among the contenders for the Up Run title held by Camille Herron. But on just her drive and determination alone, the 37-year-old probably should have been.
She is in any case a 2:47 marathon runner and has previously completed the Comrades in a ‘very bad time’ of 8:04.
“On Sunday I want to be in the top 10 so that all rape survivors can see that the rapists should not be allowed to take anything from us. For me he did not take away my physical abilities.”
If anything her near-death rape experience from November 2016 has set Mfunzi on fire, turning her into a lifeline for many survivors whom she is in touch with via social media as well as through motivational talks.
It happened three years ago, but the lanky athlete from Gatyana (Willowvale) in the former Transkei remembers her rape ordeal as if it were yesterday.
“I was on my way to a race when I got lost in another village, Mhlakulu in Tsolo, and asked directions from this guy who turned out to be a serial killer. He hit me with a hammer on my back and then took me to his place and raped me.
“He was going to kill me afterwards and as I lay there I saw all the different weapons he clearly used to kill others. But incredibly he looked at me and said ‘you know, for the first time I feel pity’. I convinced him I would not report him and he bought my story.”
Time does heal and Mfunzi has clearly gotten over her ordeal as she relates the story in an almost detached manner.
It is when she shares what happened next that the emotions surface.
“After leaving his place I ended up in a hospital and they treated me and gave me pain killers. I told them I was there for the race which I had won the previous two years. The psychologists suggested that I should still go run. I honestly thought he was crazy but at night when I struggled to sleep I decided to go do the race the next day.”
Driven by anger and hurt, she ran the race of her life and completed a hat-trick of wins.
“When I was running, every step I took was for me like a punch into that man’s gut or face. I opened such a big gap on the second-placed lady that I got a standing ovation and the loudest cheer. I cried so much at the finish and the crowd kept cheering, clearly thinking it was tears of joy. They did not know that I was dying inside.”
From then on, it was either a case of live or die for Mfunzi.
“I was left with two choices after that rape. What do I do? Let the situation destroy my life or rise above it.
“I decided to take the latter and running helped me. I have used it as a coping mechanism for what happened.”
She more than used it alright, Mfunzi having some excellent runs that makes her target of a top 10 finish tomorrow seem real.
She finished as the third South African woman at the 2017 Sanlam Cape Town Marathon having earlier attained a 10th spot at the Two Oceans Marathon.
For this year, she goes into the Comrades on the back of a 2:48 Hanover Marathon, achieved despite some stomach cramps.
Of course the Comrades is a different beast, and she is well aware of that.
“I ran Comrades in 2013 but I was not ready for it. My club then made me run it because I had run a good Two Oceans (3:52) the year before and finished in eighth place. It was an Up Run and with 20km to go my muscles were very sore and that slowed me down. I finished 22nd and we actually won the women’s team prize. But that race traumatised me. I ran eight hours. Who runs that long? I do not even sleep that long. I decided that I will not go back until I was ready to run it proper.”
She is ready now, and not just to prove her athletic ability but to inspire rape victims more than she already has.
“I have a cause to run for. I am not going to run for myself. And so even when the going gets tough, I will keep on going because I want to show that being raped does not equal being incapacitated.”
An HR employee in the correctional services, Mfunzi has found healing through not only running but by writing poems and posting them on Facebook.
“By sharing my story I have helped a lot of other women speak out and deal with their trauma. I also travel around to give talks but I know that nothing will speak louder than me finishing in the top 10 at Comrades.”
Lest you think she will be solely reliant on emotions and talent to see her through tomorrow, she won’t.
“My coach Alec Riddle (Comrades Marathon’s Eye In The Sky man) has helped me through this journey. He is not just a coach but a counsellor too. He always knows what to say to make me feel better.”
Riddle is equally complimentary of Mfunzi: “She is one of the most remarkable people I’ve ever worked with. I’d stopped coaching years ago, but when she asked last year I’m glad I said yes.”
He will be more glad should his charge achieve her top 10 goal - a feat that will probably talk to rape survivors out there louder than any therapist could.@tshiliboy
Independent on Saturday